20 Engineering Creativity Tips You Must Know

Engineering creativity is essential for high-performing engineers. Especially, those who lead projects and work on the bleeding edge.

According to Wikipedia, creativity is found in engineering through the following:

The use of scientific principles to design and build machines, structures, and other items, including bridges, tunnels, roads, vehicles, and buildings.

Now, memorizing a bunch of theorems and equations doesn’t make engineers creative. But, understanding how to apply mathematical and scientific concepts does.

Even more, engineering creativity will be the last skill set to become automated. You’ll find yourself insulated from the oncoming automation revolution.

#1 Run with the best idea you come up with

When you struggle to brainstorm the perfect idea, just run with your best idea. Even if it sucks, it’ll get your mental wheels turning. Then, new ideas will spark, without having wasted time searching for the perfect idea.

I always find getting a design on paper helps me discover issues I hadn’t thought of before. In the same vein, this is why prototypes are built. Prototypes allow you to do real-world investigative work to later find the perfect design.

#2 Question everything around you

matt henry tesla vehicle
Tesla vehicle (Photo Credit: Matt Henry)

A curious mind exposes you to answers and creative solutions. For example, the following are some Tesla vehicle questions to ask:

  • How do electric cars work?
  • How is power safely transmitted in cables?
  • What are the main advantages of electric cars over gasoline cars?
  • How do cars drive autonomously?
  • How can electric car batteries recharge so many times with little degradation?

By learning from existing creative solutions, you collect more creative data points. Then the more data points you collect, the more creative you become.

It’s important to realize, engineering today heavily relies on millions of past discoveries. For example, the company Tesla didn’t invent electric vehicles. The tech for electric cars existed for decades before Elon Musk ever took over at Tesla. Tesla simply iterated over the tech.

Surprising to many, this design iteration process is one type of engineering creativity. More often than not, you won’t design something super unique no one has seen before.

#3 Gather information in your field of work

The more knowledge you hold, the better you can dissect problems to find solutions. So become a vacuum and suck in as much relevant information in your field as possible.

Each piece of information becomes a creative tool. And the more creative tools you have, the better you can construct awesome solutions.

#4 Just start 

You won’t become a creative wizard overnight. Everything worthwhile takes time. And with creativity, there’s no ceiling to shoot for, as you can always get better.

Naturally, the best thing is to always just start. Then over time, your creativity will grow and grow. It’s a positive feedback loop.

This is why after every year of employment, you’ll find yourself doing more creative work. It’s not a coincidence.

#5 Read biographies of influential people in your field

When you read a biography, focus on the thoughts of the person in the story. Try to pick apart how their mind worked and what made them tick.

Better yet, place yourself in their shoes with their problems staring back at you. Then, try to puzzle together solutions without peeking at what they did. Because everything in hindsight makes you say, “duh!”

Once you pick up their train of thought, use it to solve problems of your own.

#6 Disconnect from social media to free your mind

You need a clear mind for long stretches of time to tap into your engineering creativity. And one huge wall to creative thoughts is social media.

Social media constantly pulls your thoughts and emotions in different directions. The emotional rollercoaster can then hamper your brain’s processing power.

So, protect your mind by limiting your usage of social media.

#7 Don’t be afraid to start from scratch

There’s nothing wrong with starting over. In fact, you’re doing everyone a huge disservice if you think your first idea is your best idea. More times than not, your first idea is only the starting point.

When I started working as an engineer, I always tried to run with my first ideas. Because to me, they looked good and I didn’t want to waste time redoing everything. Not surprisingly, after I dug into my solutions, I always discovered design issues.

But because of my stubbornness, I wasted weeks of time trying to force a square peg into a round hole. All the while, the foundation of my designs had issues.

In short, even my shortcomings as a young buck were part of the creative process. I learned starting from scratch is okay. And now, I don’t get overly attached to any one design.

#8 Look for new design perspectives

The common theme is, the more data you have, the more you can boost your engineering creativity.

But how can you quickly gather globs of amazing data? The answer is through perspective. Because more often than not, we get trapped inside our own thought bubbles.

Not only does this limit your creativity, but you’ll almost never come up with the best designs. New perspectives allow you to dissect problems in completely different ways.

So if you’re designing cars, learn from different manufacturers. Go speak with the design engineers. Your car design creativity will then skyrocket.

#9 Be a copycat

spacex falcon heavy landing
SpaceX Falcon Heavy Landing (Photo Credit: SpaceX)

There’s a huge stigma around copying other people’s ideas. But the truth is, all engineers stand on the shoulders of past engineers and scientists.

I’m not saying to steal patents. Rather, iterate over and improve existing designs. All great engineers do this. It’s a form of creativity.

No one creates a design so novel, without the influence of past discoveries. Even the innovative SpaceX wasn’t the first company to launch and reuse rockets. 25 years ago, NASA successfully launched its prototype reusable rocket called the DCX. The DCX could vertically launch and land.

Then SpaceX came along and iterated over the existing technology in an amazing way. SpaceX lands their Falcon Boosters on drone-controlled ships in the middle of oceans!

So, recycle and iterate over past designs, to meet your project specs. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

#10 Constantly challenge yourself

Never settle! Rather, always challenge yourself in the following ways:

  • Constantly learn
  • Test new ideas over old ideas
  • Take on new work you’ve never done before

Just think about it. If humans had become complacent, we could still be living in caves today. We would’ve become satisfied with life after just learning how to create fire with two sticks. Imagine how difficult life would be today…

This mentality of endlessly challenging the status quo is best seen today in Elon Musk. He’s constantly pushing the envelope with each of his companies. He’s not even slowing down as his challenges grow in size and complexity.

Elon’s secret sauce is using each of his successes as a stepping stone to greater challenges. And I bet if he lands humans on Mars, he’ll still continue to push the envelope.

#11 Distance yourself from your kryptonite

Distance yourself from any and all distractions. Because we all have focus-crashing kryptonite. For some people it’s their phone, for others it’s friends and family.

You need all your brainpower to tap into your engineering creativity. So, create your best focus environment and leverage it to unleash your creativity.

#12 Build confidence and overcome insecurities

Confidence is key when you entertain bold ideas. This is because the most creative ideas attract many naysayers. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear the following as an engineer:

“This is not how we do it. I’ve done this design this way, for 40 years. You’re just wasting your time!”

You’ll have more naysayers too if you don’t have many years of experience. Or, if you don’t have the alphabet soup listed after your name. This is why the ability to crush your insecurities in engineering is important.

#13 Write down your thoughts and ideas

I always find it funny how the best ideas strike you when you least expect them. So when a light bulb goes off in your head, quickly jot down your thoughts. Because more than likely, the idea will escape your mind and may never return.

I’ve had this happen to me on one too many occasions. Now, I always instantly write down any and all ideas, which strike me. I either use my notepad app on my phone, or I carry paper and pencil with me.

#14 Say “Yes!” more often

Working with close-minded people can be frustrating. It’s either their way or the highway. What’s worse, this creates echo chambers, which hinder creativity.

As we learned in Tip #8, new perspectives are a huge part of creativity. So, always keep an open mind. Because a poor idea today may be the best idea tomorrow with some polishing.

And if an idea is ludicrous, it’s still another data point. You’ll better learn what to do and not to do.

#15 Keep your head in the clouds and daydream 

We all daydream and there’s nothing shameful about it. And the subjects you read about the most, tend to shape your daydreaming. So, daydreaming plays a critical role in boosting engineering creativity.

Even more, new studies suggest daydreaming may signal your aptitude level. People with too much brainpower can’t stop their minds from wandering. Then not surprisingly, a wandering mind is more likely to make discoveries.

The next time you daydream, write down any cool ideas, which strike you. Because much of the creativity found today, I’m sure came from people who got lost in their dreams.

#16 Exercise and break a sweat

No matter how you spin it, life is stressful. And I find exercise to be one of the best ways to reduce stress and clear your mind. For as long as I can remember, I’ve used exercise to reset my mind after strenuous days.

I go under a heavy barbell and rep out the weight until I can’t lift anymore. Then, the same endorphins, which make me feel great, also improve my focus. This in return boosts my creativity.

#17 Step outside of your comfort zone and take risks

golden gate bridge black and white
Golden Gate Bridge (Photo Credit: Angel Origgi)

You can’t stay inside your comfort zone if you want to maximize your creativity. Because only safe and proven work sits inside your comfort zone.

To test your creative limits, take risks, and expose yourself to failure and ridicule. It’ll seem scary at first, but the greater the risk, the greater the reward.

What’s more, the higher you move up in engineering, the greater risks you’ll need to take. Because you’ll have less handholding to guide you as a leading expert. So all the required creativity will fall on your shoulders.

#18 Find someone to lean on for emotional support

Tackling complex engineering problems can be mind-numbingly stressful. In these instances, any type of support helps. Especially, if your support is someone from your field, who can give you feedback.

In return, you get inspiration and reassurance to continue on your creative path.

#19 Step outside of your circle of expertise

Sometimes, inspiration comes from industries outside of yours. Or even, from something completely off the wall.

For example, birds inspired humans to build airplanes. Just take a look at the Airbus “Bird of Prey” airliner inspired by eagles. The aircraft mimics an eagle’s wing and tail structure.

Even more fascinating is the inspiration from eagle feathers. They inspired the individually controlled aircraft feathers for active flight control. The point is, speak with people in industries outside of yours. Learn from them. Pick their brains.

Heck, go nature watch as you may come up with the next amazing vehicle. The goal is to gather as much data as possible to beef up your engineering creativity. Again, the more data at your fingertips, the more creative you become. Even when it’s obscure data.

#20 Take yourself out of the context of reality

I’m not saying to take magical mushrooms. But, it’s important to pull yourself out of the context of your reality from time to time. Because the daily grind can shut the doors on your once-bright childhood curiosity.

The great thing is, there are many safe ways to pull yourself out of your reality. I like to immerse myself  in all the following mediums:

  • Books
  • Video games
  • Movies
  • Music
  • Travel
  • The lens of a telescope or microscope

All these activities help disconnect me from my everyday life bubble. Then, I get a whole new lens on life, which enhances my creativity. This traces back to Tip #8 with perspective.

As a favorite escape of mine, I sit alone and look deep into the night sky. The cosmos is one of the most fascinating and intriguing escapes for the human mind. You instantly get zapped out from society’s shackles.

Conclusion

The ceiling of creativity differs from person to person. So not everyone can become a creative genius. But by using these 20 tips, you’ll maximize your creativity.

Even more, check out how to be a creative engineer in 7 steps. These 7 steps go in hand with the 20 tips in this article.

With boosted creativity, you’ll learn to better manipulate the world around you. This is a superpower few people possess.

What are your suggestions for boosting engineering creativity? Do you think engineers can become more creative?

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